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Thursday, 06 July 2006

Retiring President's address


I want to thank God and the Uniting Church for three amazing years in which my dependence upon our Lord Jesus Christ has deepened, I have had to grow in my understanding of discipleship nationally and internationally, and I have known the privilege of serving this great Uniting Church.

Recently I had my car serviced. When the consultant at the front desk gave me my service ticket, I turned it over and the number was “84”. Not again!  For the first few months of this triennium the one issue of sexuality encapsulated in Proposal 84 dominated all correspondence and thought as we attempted to work through how to responsibly be faithful to the last Assembly and the other Councils of the Church.  Slowly it became plain, that this was not only about the presenting issue of sexuality, it was also most definitely about the nature of the Uniting Church.  Despite what some wanted, the 10th Assembly overwhelmingly insisted on leaving the responsibility of ordination to the Presbyteries.  The Assembly called upon the Church to live by the governance of its Basis of Union.  The Basis of Union also calls us to live with the diversity of our partial views of mission and faith as together we work through to the truth Christ has for us to discover as a people.   In the last two years I have seen people growing into our Basis of Union, and refusing to accept a Basis of Division.  Christ calls us to live towards His future as a reconciling people, the Uniting Church, offering reconciliation and renewal in a fragmented society. 

This last triennium has seen the deaths of our first President Rev Dr Davis McCaughey, the Rev Dr Geoff Barnes, and the Rev Dr Ian Gillman, each members of the Joint Commission on Church Union Planning Committee, and as well our fifth President Sir Ronald Wilson.  We are losing our founding fathers.  How thrilled they would have been to be present at the World Council of Churches in Porto Alegre Brazil, and see the World Church following the path emblazoned in the Basis of Union.  One of the most significant decisions of the WCC was to call all the Churches of the World to consider the document “Called to be One Church” to give priority to the questions of unity, baptism, catholicity and prayer.  In addition the WCC accepted into its Constitution that its meetings be conducted by Consensus meeting procedures, and asked our 7th President Jill Tabbart to guide their implementation.  The Spirit of Christ is leading the whole Church into new paths.  I was thrilled to see how the UCA is acknowledged by so many Churches throughout the world for the lead we are seen to be taking in this adventure of reconciliation and mission, and proud of the recognition given to the President Gregor Henderson for his service to the International Church.

Such a farewell address as this helps recall so many significant times.  Without the call of God to this office I would never have sat in the sand with Aboriginal friends at Millingimbi, stood on the tsunami devastated plains of the city of Banda Aceh, been at a memorial service on Bali, or have seen the human destruction let loose by religious hatred in Ambon.  I would never have visited detention centres, spoken to ministers of the crown, pleaded for the release of asylum seekers, or cried as they offered thanks to God for their release. I would never have ventured into the lion’s den of the senate inquiry into Industrial Relations with Rev Dr Anne Wansborough, or stood with Muslim friends alongside the burnt out Church Hall at Auburn.  These events and so many more have indelibly impressed the issues of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and human rights upon me in new and fuller ways.

There is one deep bass note that stays with me.  In 2004 I attended the World Alliance of Reformed Churches meeting and had the experience of visiting the Elminah slave castle on the coast near Accra Ghana.  There from the 16th to the 19th Century 15 million slaves were gathered in the castles along the coast before they were sent on boats to South America, North America, and Dutch East India, half to die before they reached their destination.  These castles are like white sepulchers, beautiful on the outside but stained with the awful violence of centuries of horror within.  I was partly prepared for this, for we are beginning to own up to the violence our forbears inflicted upon Aboriginal people in this land.  What cauterized the soul, one’s very being, was being taken to the Reformed Church meeting room, built right over the heads of the slaves.  There the words of Psalm 132 v13 were carved in the Lintel.  “For the Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his habitation:” There the Reformed Church met, not for one decade, but nearly three centuries.  How could they have been so blind to the way of Christ?  But then came the question that has haunted us since that day.  What is it that we are blind to now?

The Christians amongst the poor are saying it louder and louder to Christians in the West.  How can you say yes to Jesus for your own individual Christian lives, live among the wealthy 20% of the world, and not hear the call of Jesus to care for the poor of the world.  Millions live in misery because of debt slavery, with nations paying off enormous loans to the West, and impoverishing their own people.  Indonesia pays 9 cents in every dollar to pay off debt, and only 1 cent for health and 1 cent for education. At the least they are saying we should get serious about the millennial goals to halve the number of children in poverty.

I would like to see a copy of the 1977 Statement to the Nation presented at the inauguration of the Uniting Church framed in the entry way of each of our congregations.  I want to highlight six affirmations from this prophetic statement even more relevant now than then.

First,“We will challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and the poor.” What a great nation this is, and what a great society we have here.  Yet thirty years on we see how enmeshed and compliant as a church we are with those whose gospel is that if the rich get richer, all the rest will be a little better off.  For too many of our politicians the market is God.  Budget after budget of this government has had a preferential option for the rich.  At least 10% of our population are trapped in poverty, and millions if not billions elsewhere in the world are sacrificed on the altar of this market economy. 

Secondly, and pointedly“We affirm that the first allegiance of Christians is God, under whose judgement the policies and actions of all nations must pass.  We realize that this allegiance may bring us into conflict with the rulers of our day.” In the last three years I have found that in your name I have had to speak out on issues that have brought us into conflict with some of our nation’s leaders. 

Thirdly, in particular,“We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment.” There are not enough voices demanding that as a nation we face the big issues which will not go away - sufficient fresh water, a sustainable environment in the city and country, alternative energy sources ready before oil reaches $150 a barrel, food for all.  With a concerted effort we could make poverty history, but instead the refrain is consume, consume, consume, with little concern for the tomorrows of our children and grandchildren.  

Fourthly it emphasizes, “We affirm our eagerness to uphold basic Christian values and principles, such as the importance of every human being.”

Some human rights are negotiable in Australia.  Aboriginals, asylum seekers, the poor, and now Papuans.  Anti-terrorist laws have traded away basic rights before the law.  The government has abrogated our international obligations to asylum seekers. It has turned its face from David Hicks. Thank God for those within political parties who refuse to accept the excesses of these decisions. 

Fifthly a clarion call for truth and justice. “We affirm …the need for integrity in public life, the proclamation of truth and justice.” There is abroad in Australia a neo conservative ridiculing of what is dismissed as ‘politically correct.’  But what is dismissed is careful and responsible talk about truth and values, identity, diversity and gender. Education and art are relentlessly critiqued.  Only the field of economics seems above suspicion.  In this discussion too often assertion has taken the place of truth, and serial ignorance the place of responsibility.   Three years ago retiring President James Haire prophetically protested our leaders ‘serial ignorance’ of weapons of mass destruction and children overboard. ‘Truth’ he said, ‘Is the lifeblood of democracy’.  Three years on, and the ignorance of Australians left in detention has been the prelude to what seems the most serious case of all, our leaders awareness of the dealings of the Australian Wheat Board.  With dreadful irony cereal ignorance shows what happens when serial ignorance takes the place of truth and justice.  

Finally a vision for Australia“We pledge ourselves to hope and work for a nation whose goals are not guided by self interest alone, but by concern for the welfare of all persons everywhere – the family of One God – the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth the One who gave His life for others.”

John McCain a presidential contender in the last election was imprisoned for 5 and a half years as a POW in Vietnam.  He tells of the time he was punished for communicating with the person in the next cell, kept overnight in a punishment cell tied very tightly with ropes.  As he cursed and strained against the ropes, the door suddenly opened and a young gun guard he had occasionally seen entered the room, motioned him to be silent, and without looking at him, loosened the ropes that bound him.  He left without a word.  Just prior to the dawn he returned, quickly tightened the ropes, and was gone.  

In the months that followed he saw him occasionally, but the guard never even glanced in McCain’s direction.  Then on the Christmas morning he was briefly allowed out of his cell to stand alone in the outdoors, looking up at the clear blue sky.  He became aware of the young guard as he walked near, and then for a moment stood very close to McCain. Without speaking or smiling or looking at him, this young man just stared at the ground in front of them, and then, very casually, he used his foot to draw a cross in the dirt.  They both stood looking for a minute until he rubbed it out and walked away.

In that moment he said “I forgot my hatred, the war, and lived in the reality that bridges seemingly unbridgeable divisions in humanity.”  Two people each imprisoned in different ways found their common humanity before the God who in Christ had made it possible.  He saw him pass a few more times but there was never another encounter.

These last few years have taught me, that not only is Christ found in the service, witness and worship of the everyday to which we are called, but that the Lord Jesus also invites us into difficult situations where the prisons in which we live our lives become more obvious, even as his power gives us new visions of the way the unbridgeable can be bridged.  We do not need to be afraid of the other, afraid of the divisions, for in Christ we have the reconciling one who gives us a place to be and participate in any situation.  The Holy Spirit leads us on in this demanding and joyful discipleship of the mission of God.  

But still my first love is for those who are just discovering God’s message for them.  I am always humbled when I see the bright eyes of a person who has just discovered they are loved by Jesus, the tears of joy when forgiveness is received, the delight of a person seeing that there is a new beginning in Christ for them.  But once having begun each of us is called on in the mission of God to such amazing situations in our life, and nation, and world.  I thank you Lord, for these last three years.

I want to thank the Assembly officers and staff, they have been a great inspiration. It has been a delight to work with Terence Corkin, and affirm what a gift he is to the Uniting Church. I give profuse thanks to Jenny Bertalan my personal assistant for her help, gratitude for the wisdom of Elenie Poulos in the search for justice, and such tremendous support first from Kim Cain and then from Gavin Melvin, media persons extraordinaire.  Shining through all these contributions is the overwhelming thanks I owe to God for my beloved, Sandra, who with such loving and dependable support has stuck with me all the way through this long and amazing marathon.